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Germans are known for their craftsmanship for words other languages require whole sentences for. We can express literally anything with one word by just connecting multiple words with our superpower.

Fussbodenschleifmaschinenverleih

But even as a native speaker, I recently thought about how I know how to form such words. It's not that I know any rules - it's just a feeling.


I was asked to form a question and here it is:

Are there any defined rules I can show my kids one day on how they can build such words?

I mean, we have a lot of literature about grammar but I do not remember being teached word compounds.

Here are the concepts that came in my mind while I (obviously) sat in a plane as the question popped up in my head:

The "s"-glue

At first sight, we simply love to put a "s" between two nouns to glue them together like ...

  • Sicherheitskontrolle from "Sicherheit" and "Kontrolle"
  • Freundschaftsanfrage from "Freundschaft" and "Anfrage"
  • Aufsichtsperson from "Aufsicht" and "Person"

The pluralizer

But we also have many cases we take the leading noun and put it in plural like ...

  • Personenkontrolle from singular "Person"
  • Tragflächenkontrolle from singular "Tragfläche"

The singular

Then we also have rules to keep the first noun in singular without "s" or anything else to glue the words together like ...

  • Flugzeugkontrolle instead of "Flugzeugskontrolle" or "Flugzeugekontrolle"
  • Führerscheinkontrolle instead of "Führerscheinskontrolle" or "Führerscheinekontrolle"

The shortener

As if this would not be enough, there are also cases we shorten words to glue them like ...

  • Kontrollpersonal from "Kontrolle" and "Personal"
  • Schraubverschluss from "Schraube" and "Verschluss"

Combinations

Tadaa, we can also combine all that like the shortener and the "s"-glue in ...

  • Hilfsmittel from "Hilfe" and "Mittel"

Note that I limited these examples to nouns only. This is also possible for verbs like Haltevorrichtung from "halten" (the verb) and "Vorrichtung".

Thoughts

As I wrote this, I thought I got the difference between the pluralizer and the singular version. It's the perspective whether - from my perspective - a thing affects multiple things like the multiple persons I see during a Personenkontrolle (plural) and my single driver license the police wants to see in a Führerscheinkontrolle (singular). But that's not true as well, because then I would have to say that there's a Führerscheinekontrolle in plural if I saw the police checking multiple cars along a road, for example. Just like I saw the Personenkontrolle affecting multiple persons before.

That approach obviously does not work, you would face surprised germans while saying Führerscheinekontrolle. However it gives a feeling about the "one thing" vs. "multiple things" here:

Führerscheinkontrolle (singular) vs. Personenkontrolle (plural)

But that all explodes if we take another example of two perfect german words, meaning exactly the same thing:

Wegbeschreibung (singular) vs. Routenbeschreibung (plural)

Glossary

  • Sicherheitskontrolle = Security check
  • Freundschaftsanfrage = Friend request
  • Aufsichtsperson = Supervisor
  • Personenkontrolle = Identity screening
  • Tragflächenkontrolle = Wing inspection [aviat.]
  • Flugzeugkontrolle = Aircraft inspection
  • Führerscheinkontrolle = Driving licence check
  • Kontrollpersonal = Control staff
  • Schraubverschluss = Screw cap
  • Hilfsmittel = Aid

Disclaimer: I know that this is not a real superpower 😉

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    Danke, aber in welcher Weise ist dies eine Frage? Und warum schreibst du den Text auf Englisch? – Janka Mar 6 at 23:45
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    Welcome to GermanSE, and thanks for your question! Could ask the question (How…) and then post your text as a separate answer? This would better suit the format of our site. – Philipp Mar 7 at 8:21
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    This question is amazing, especially because of the language in which it was asked! I fail to see why it's been put on hold. Maybe directly asking "Are there any rules in making compound nouns?" would help... – Easymode44 Mar 7 at 17:03
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    @Janka, I am new here and I wanted to do things right. So I scanned quite a lot other questions before: most of them were in english. I think german.stackexchange targets another audience as gutefrage.net 😉 – Waescher Mar 8 at 12:47
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    To avoid any misunderstandings: your are absolutely free to choose the language your question is written in. We have no rule forcing you into writing in German. If your question addresses an English speaking audience you should preferably ask in English. Your question was put on hold because it was more of an answer than a question. You should as Philipp had recommended spilt your post into a question and an answer. The answering part should go into the answer box below. Self-answers are welcome here. Thank you. – Takkat Mar 8 at 13:27
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In my opinion the "rules" come from the Bestimmungswort/ determinative element which is determined by the occasion/ context it happens usually.

There are some rules (on duden.de) that touches the question of "space, no space, hyphen": getrennt- und zusammenschreibung and Bindestrich (Fremdwörter provides not more) - the hyphen is for readability until the word is commonly known (and should have no known rival: E-Mail va. Emailthe vitreous enamel.

(try to show it with given examples)

The "s"-glue - is genitive

  • Sicherheitskontrolle from "Sicherheit" and "Kontrolle" - which control is it? - the security's because that is the reason for the check
  • Freundschaftsanfrage from "Freundschaft" and "Anfrage" - whom is the question for? - the (known or new) friend
  • Aufsichtsperson from "Aufsicht" and "Person" - which person is it? - the supervision's one because supervision itself cannot do it

The pluralizer

  • Personenkontrolle from singular "Person" - what / who is to be controlled? Many unknown persons because it happens when the checker doesn't know them in advance
  • Tragflächenkontrolle from singular "Tragfläche" - what/ who is to be controlled? - pair of wings because a single one is incomplete airfoil

The singular

  • Flugzeugkontrolle instead of "Flugzeugskontrolle" or "Flugzeugekontrolle" - what is usually checked at once? - a single plane because until now there is no mass plane screening (and planes had been rare at the beginning
  • Führerscheinkontrolle instead of "Führerscheinskontrolle" or "Führerscheinekontrolle" - what is to be checked? - only the driver's license of the driver thus a single one

The shortener

  • Kontrollpersonal from "Kontrolle" and "Personal"
  • Schraubverschluss from "Schraube" and "Verschluss"

=> in my opionion these examples are verb and noun: the controlling staff, the screwing lock

Combinations

  • Hilfsmittel from "Hilfe" and "Mittel" - imo that is first case: genitiv's s: which medium is it? - the help's one

Now a look at the real super power: 3 or more words combined - these are an ongoing combination of determinative element and primary word:

  • Fussbodenschleifmaschinenverleih
    • in order of "constructing": Maschinen & Verleih
    • => schleifen & Maschine
    • => (encapsulated: Fuß & Boden) Fussboden & (encapsulated) Schleifmaschine
    • could be literally translated to: a renting station where you can rent machines that are capable to grind (thus: grinding machines) the floor
  • Wohnzimmerwandschrankschubladenknopffarbe (artificial word used in games)
    • Knopf & Farbe
    • Schublade & Knopf
    • Schrank & Schublade OR encapsulated: (Wand & Schrank) & Schublade
    • Wand & Schrank
    • encapsulated: (Wohnen & Zimmer) & (Wand & Schrank)
    • could be literally translated to: the color of a knob of a drawer of a cupboard in a wall / of a wall cupboard of the living room
  • Deriving a simple compositional rule is misguided, IMHO, the power is in overlapping, interlocking (what's the word?), e.g.: "Fußboden schleifen" + "Schleifmaschine" = "Fußbodenschleifmaschine". I'm inclined to say that the power here is integration, that can be lost if unpacking like you tried. Even for two part compounds the rules are not simple:an "Eislöffel" is not made of ice, and a "Holzlhammer" is not strictly used to work wood Composition of morphemes is ancient, e.g. PIE has had root extension systems (that still elude me). So even those -el and -er can have semantic content. – vectory Mar 10 at 16:17
  • @vectory: your "eislöffel" example fits into my question pattern "what is it to be spooned? - the ice". Holzlhammer never heard, so being blank here - just to point out that dialect words might never fit a pattern: "Halver Hahn" is far from a half male chicken. Any science older than current German is beyond my knowledge, sorry. – Shegit Brahm Mar 12 at 14:23
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I question the underlying claim. There is no "word chaining super power" in German as compared to other languages.

German's word chaining super power is grossly overestimated, or simply misunderstood. Other languages do this, too. See for example the English expression word chaining super power, which may be a bit clumsy but is a totally viable expression anyway. (And clumsy are the long word chains in German, too.)

The only difference is that in German, when writing, you leave out the blanks. No difference in pronunciation, though.

Examples:

project description --> Projektbeschreibung

nuclear arms deal --> Atomwaffenübereinkunft

blue water sailing --> Hochseeschifferei

project management interim report --> Projektmanagementzwischenbericht 1

Really, what's the difference?

The idea of a "word chaining super power" is based only on the visual impression of words in writing. Word boundaries, however, is, from a linguist's standpoint, a topic much more complicated than just "do we type a space or not."


1) It is, however, good practice in professional typesetting to make such long chains easier to read by strategically placed hyphens: Projektmanagement-Zwischenbericht

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    Of course this is no real super power, that was meant to give it a bit of a funny touch. I did not want to ask if there is a super power or not. But as anyone can see in your examples, the english way of doing it seems very straight to me. There are no glue-characters or other constructs someone has to learn. It's "just" putting words together in the right order that make sense. In german, there have to be rules because everyone does it right but noone can tell you why. At least that is my experience while asking around. – Waescher Mar 8 at 13:14
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    @Waescher the rules are not set in stone or depend on regional preferences, too. Forexample, in some regions it is Schweinebraten, while others will use Schweinsbraten. You will instantly be noticed if you follow the convention of the other region. And those conventions differ between words. – Chieron Mar 8 at 14:06
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    @Waescher Yes, I understood your initial idea. Still I thought I it could be no mistake to straighten this out a bit, not that much with respect to you, rather with respect to a large percentage of the US American public who seems to believe in such a special trait of German. - My observation is based on consumption of all kinds of US American late night shows where this pops up quite regularly, and it is almost every time misconceived. – Christian Geiselmann Mar 8 at 17:12
  • @Waescher the intermittent s, a Fugenlaut could be said to appear in English, too, e.g. in craftsmanship, and it appears to be a genetive inflection, to me, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's more complicated than that, including phoneics--that is, -n strikes me as very much in the same vein, cp. Maschinenverleih, instead of "Maschin-Verleih", but "Fußboden-schleif-" instead if Fußbödenschleif. Also someone please explain dialectical Futtern wie bei Muttern to me (will post the Q as soon as possible). – vectory Mar 10 at 16:06
  • @vectory If you are asking for the -n in "bei Muttern": that's simply an old dative ending for females. You find this in older texts sometimes, e.g. "Da gab er Dorotheen einen Blumenstrauß". What I am not sure is if the -n is (or was) also correct for accusative ("Er küsste Dorotheen inniglich") I think I have seen this, but I have no idea what a historical linguist would say about it. – Christian Geiselmann Mar 10 at 17:19

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